You are here: Home > Travel > Bhutan > Overview > Info > Topics > Religion > Bonism and Shamanism Search
Bhutan's Religion
Bonism and Shamanism
Bhutan's Religion Bon
Bon, Buddhism or both - What do Bhutanese believe?
Bhutan Information
Bhutan Tourist Destinations
Grafik Grafik
Video Bhutan Videos
Bon, Buddhism or both - What do we Bhutanese believe?
While we in Bhutan may be Buddhists in faith, it seems that we are more Bon in our daily rituals. In the past, because of our lack of understanding of Bon, we simply relegated it to the villages (of earlier Kuensel article written by Rinzin Wangchuk), where animals were sacrificed and Yul lhas worshipped. But Bon actually constitutes more than that.

"Bon:The Magic Word - The Indigenous Religion of Tibet", an ongoing exhibition at the Rubin Museum of Art in New York, is the world's first exhibition ever on Bon.

To a viewer, the showcased pieces of art are no different from Tibetan-Buddhist paintings. But a picture of what may be (or look like) Buddha Sakyamuni is actually Tonpa Shenrab, Bon's founding father. A painting of what may resemble the Tara is the Bon goddess Sherab Chemma. The differences are so slight that it takes a Bonpo or Buddhist expert to recognize them.

Jeff Watts, Director and Curator for the Himalayan Art Resource, says that some ways to identify Bon art would be to look for distinctive symbols, objects and the number of disciples or attendants.

The Buddha is usually depicted with two, while Tonpa Shenrab has four or more figures. The latter is also shown sometimes with a sceptre and a lotus hat beside him.

Tonpa Shenrab, the Bon Buddha look-alike
Tshog offering on altar/terrace at Halong
Hand gestures also help. In the Bon meditation posture, the left hand is placed, palm up, over the right hand, which is also depicted palm up.

In the Buddhist tradition, it is the reverse. But Bon artists weren't always consistent with these depictions and that adds to present day confusion. Rainbows and indigenous animals of Tibet like the otter, bear, yak, wild ass (kyang) and bamen are also said to be more common in Bon art.

The overall similarity in the styles speaks for the history of the two religions and how each influenced the other over centuries, leaving much of the Buddhist regions in the Himalayas with a unique and colourful strand of Buddhism. But while the arts and traditions may appear to be alike - Bonpo nuns and monks wear red robes, have lamas and monasteries just like Buddhists do - there are fundamental differences.

Buddhists attribute their teachings and philosophy to the historical Buddha from India and revere him above all deities in the Buddhist pantheon. The Bonpos, however, believe that Bon philosophy, similar to Buddhism, was actually taught by Tonpa Shenrab. In fact, because Bon predates Buddhism's advent into Tibet, they believe that the original Buddha was Tonpa Shenrab and not Buddha Sakyamuni. Bonpo's also circumambulate their temples anti-clockwise and all their lamas are voted into their positions, unlike Buddhist ones, who are reincarnated. Today there are an estimated 2 million Bonpos, whose beliefs and practices have little to do with Buddhism.

So how are we more Bon in practice?

The answer seems to vary between Bonpos and Buddhists and their claims on the sources of ritualistic traditions and who influenced whom with what. Dasho Sangay Wangchuk, advisor to department of Cultural Affairs in the Home Ministry, acknowledges that Buddhist practice in Bhutan has had an overpowering influence from Bon. "In my opinion and from my observations, the influence has been great. Although Buddhism is our faith, I think many of our rituals are not only derived from Bon but are based on Bon beliefs," he said.

Many ritual objects we use and think to be Buddhist originate from Bon. Research and studies on the subject seem to support this. Prayer flags, tormas (sacrificial food offerings), use of swords, spears, and arrows in rituals, namkhas (thread-cross constructions), belief in lus (underworld spirits), yulhas (village deities), and nyes (spirits that live in trees, rocks, lakes and mountains), are all Bon traditions. Even our endless worldly rituals to local deities, observed to clear obstacles, to bring wealth, to make the sick better, pawos, mo and tsi all come from the Bonpo cosmogony. Our death rituals also stem from Bon and the practice of Phowa comes from their soul ritual.

Gyeshe Samdrup Dorji is a Bonpo Gyeshe from the Bon Menri monastery in India. He is a student of Menri Trizin, the highest Bonpo Lama today. Gyeshe Samdrup's mother is a Bhutanese and, while visiting her in Bhutan a few years ago, he came upon a monastery in the district of Wangduephodrang called Shaa Sidpai Gang. He was curious since Sidpai Gyalmo is the arch Deity for the Bonpos.

"I made some enquiries and I found that the local deity was indeed Sidpai Gyalmo. I was very surprised to discover that. It seems that Bon is very much there," he said. According to him Bonpo texts also claim that a Bonpo Dzongchen master, Shanshung Nyenju, meditated at Taktshang long before Guru Rinpoche made it famous.

The most controversial of all practice and beliefs, however, is animal sacrifice. Gyeshe Samdrup denies it ever had a place in the Bon religion. Most present day writings about Bon do not mention it. But it is evident that animal sacrifice - in some cases even human - was a feature of Bon in pre-Buddhist times in Tibet. B L Bansal, an Indian writer, confirms this in his book, "Bon: Its Encounter with Buddhism in Tibet".

"Sacrifice of animals to propitiate gods was an important feature of the old Bon religion," he says. "Such sacrifices were performed in state ceremonies. Sheep, dogs, donkeys, horses, yaks, and sometimes, even human beings were sacrificed to please the gods."

According to Bansal, vivid descriptions of such practices can be found in Bon texts like gZer myig.

"If animal sacrifices taking place in some Bhutanese villages are said to be Bon, then I don't know what they are practising," Gyeshe Samdrup said. But Khenpo Tenzing Norgay, a Bhutanese student of Penor Rinpoche, said that this was the practice of Bon Nagpo. There are two kinds of Bon, he said, Bon Karpo and Bon Nagpo. "The Nagpo entails black magic and animal sacrifice. It is an outdated practice. Present day Bon is associated with Bon Karpo, which is similar to Buddhism and certainly does not entail these practices." According to Kuensel, a Kasho was issued several years ago by the Je Khenpo to stop animal sacrifice.

So how did it come to be in Bhutan in the first place? One theory is that, when Buddhism came to Tibet in the 7th century, King Song Tsen Gampo's court readily embraced it. Bonpos, who were then socially discriminated against because of their pagan beliefs, were persecuted and forced to convert. Those who didn't fled and settled in regions across the Himalayas where their traditions were conserved. Meanwhile, Bonpos who remained in Tibet found ways to practice by masking their religion with influences from Buddhism. Simultaneously Buddhism also borrowed from Bon. This was the beginning of the assimilation we find today.

Contributed by Sonam Wangmo, special to Kuensel, Bhutan's National Newspaper, 2008

Information on Bhutan
Religion in Bhutan
Culture in Bhutan
People in Bhutan
Tshechu Festivals
Bhutan Photo Galleries
Motor Biking
Mountain Biking
Punakha Dzong
Dzongs in Bhutan
Lhuentse and Mongar
Trongsa and Zhemgang
Paro and Haa
Southern Bhutan
Photo Galleries
Dzongs and Monasteries in Bhutan East-West-Highway by motorcycle
Dochula - Druk Wangyal Khangzang Chhortens
Mongar and Lhuentse
Videos: Rafting, Tshechu, Motor Biking, Roads ...
previous page Bhutan Home